For parents who don't work the usual 9-to-5 shift, child-care arrangements can be complicated or makeshift. Certainly, the options are limited.
Now, as welfare reform sends more moms into the work force and as the US economy hums well past 5 p.m., many child-care providers already are seeing a surge in demand for "night care," or round-the-clock day care.
As a White House conference today examines child-care shortcomings in America, parents and experts say providing care that extends past daytime work hours should become a national priority.
"There is growing attention to people who've been underserved by work-family efforts," says Robin Hardman of the Families and Work Institute in New York. Companies "are starting to think more about hourly employees."
At 7 p.m. in a gritty neighborhood of north Minneapolis, as many as 21 children fold out cots, don pajamas, and enjoy a bedtime story with a staff member of the Agape Child Development Center. The newly opened center offers working parents - mostly single mothers just leaving welfare for jobs - a reliable child-care option that can accommodate their late-night or overnight work schedules.
Each child brings something special to his or her cot: a pillow, a well-worn blanket, a favorite toy. "Anything that makes them feel comfortable, we ask the moms to bring it," says Diane Thibodeaux, Agape's executive director.
But this 24-hour center is unusual in the world of day care. Ms. Hardman and other experts estimate there are just a dozen or so round-the-clock care centers in the nation.
But demand for such flexible-hour child care is expected to rise over the next 10 years.
"The standard work day is now a 24-hour work day, and people have to fill different parts of it," says Arnold Brown, a trends analyst at Weiner, Edrich and Brown in New York. In an economy increasingly dominated by the service sector, "some people have to be available at all hours."
These people - including a growing number of single moms formerly on welfare - work in hotels, hospitals, restaurants, cleaning services, and factories. They are among the 1 in 5 US workers who hold down jobs with nontraditional hours, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Despite mounting pressure to extend day-care hours, most small or medium-size child-care centers cannot afford to do so. "We currently do not offer 24-hour care. It would be too expensive to staff," says Jayna Richmond, associate director of Amy's Daycare in Sacramento, Calif. The center would also need to add beds and more space to accommodate sleeping arrangements, she says.
The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agency held six meetings in different locations across the country last spring. The meetings, which sought to learn where children of late-working parents are staying, confirmed the need for more care alternatives. "Everyone knows a desperate parent, desperate for care for their child," says Atlanta-based Ruth Anne Foote of the NACCRRA.
Parents who need early or late care often prefer to rely on family, neighbors, or someone who can come to their homes, NACCRRA found. Day-care centers that operate a second or third shift were often subsidized by an employer, the community, or a church.
"There are some good models, but we are still struggling with providing quality of life for the child if he has to go to bed in a strange place and get up in the middle of the night and go back to bed," says Ms. Foote.
At Agape in Minneapolis, three-fourths of those using the center are just leaving welfare and entering the workplace, says the center's Ms. Thibodeaux. Minnesota's welfare-to-work program will put an extra 22,000 preschoolers in the market for extended day care by 1999 - a similar surge is expected to occur nationwide under federally mandated welfare reform.
The good news for parents is that child care has become more of a mainstream concern of corporate America. A work-family movement is picking up steam in the business community. Moreover, some companies are seeing a link between the bottom line and employee confidence that family needs are being met.
"On-site child care is offered by many of our clients, but they are large, leading companies. They are ahead of the game," says Deborah Parkinson of The Conference Board, a business research firm in New York.
Nevertheless, Ms. Parkinson points to a growing number of groups and industries pooling resources to provide on-site, extended day care, including hotels, hospitals, and some large insurance firms.
Atlanta's Inn for Children, for example, began accepting preschool-age last July, averting what odd-houred minimum-wage earners described as a crisis. The hotel industries banded together to create the Inn, providing reliable, low-cost care for their employees.
"The more you do for your people, the more you get back," says Wayne Learned of Commercial Financial Services, a firm of 3,000 employees, in Tulsa, Okla. The bill-collecting firm offers employees a free, in-house service that is used by parents of 356 preschoolers. The day-care center is open anytime a parent would be asked to work late or work overtime. Typically, it operates from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., at a cost to the company of $600 per month per child.
According to Mr. Learned, the investment in extended care helps the bottom line. "It attracts and retains employees. We can provide a setting where parents don't have to worry," he says.
This summer, Commercial Financial Services also ran a summer camp for youngsters. It hired 175 high school and college-aged kids of employees to run it. "[Our employees] are focused, fiercely loyal, and rarely absent," Learned says.
* H.J. Cummins in Minneapolis contributed to this report.